The aviation industry has not met its climate targets for 20 years

In 2017, futurist Alex Steffen coined the term “predatory delay”, defining it as “the blocking or slowing down of necessary changes, in order to make money from unfair and unsustainable systems while waiting”. I wrote at the time: “This is not delay due to lack of action, but delay as a plan of action – a way of keeping things as they are for people who benefit now, to the detriment of next and future generations.” The aviation industry is a prime example of crowding out delay.

A new report—”Missed Goals: A Brief History of Aviation’s Climate Change Goals“—prepared for the UK-based climate action charity Possible says the aviation industry has missed all but one climate target since 2000. The report, written by Green Gumption’s Jamie Beevor and independent researcher Keith Alexander, covers pledges made in the years after the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 1999 Special Agreement. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on aviation. The latter was the first to specify the impact of aviation on the climate.

Missed Target Report

The fun begins with this example from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the trade association for the world’s airlines. Since 2000, it has variously promised a 50% improvement in efficiency, later reduced to 25%, then changed to a target of 1.5% per year. Most aviation organizations have similar moving targets.

Then there are the airlines. Virgin Atlantic has been the most aggressive, setting a target in 2007 of a 30% reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) per revenue tonne-kilometre by 2020. It wrote in 2010 that “this is an important target and we stick to it”. This was not the case.

By 2021, the carrier announced new targets extending to 2040. The report notes that the 2021 press release “does not mention the 30% target set for 2021 (previously 2020), nor the 2030 interim target it set the year before, or their seemingly abandoned sustainable biofuel target of 10% of their fuel mix by 2020.”

Unlike Virgin Atlantic, EasyJet set itself unambitious targets and in fact came close to meeting them, given its relentless drive to cut costs, fuel being one of the most important. As the report notes, “Efficiency goals are aligned with cost reduction, as fuel burn accounts for a high share of airline operating costs, but other business goals invariably take precedence over targeted progress. In practice”.

The targets were also based on increased efficiency rather than the amount of emissions, so any reduction in emissions from better aircraft was swallowed up by growing demand.

In the end, almost every aviation organization or airline that made promises and commitments missed them and buried them. The authors spent a lot of time using the Wayback Machine to find deleted web pages.

Missing Targets Report

Another set of promises relates to the use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), where fossil fuels are replaced with biofuels made from crops or fatty waste. In 2007 IATA claimed that SAF would be 10% of fuel by 2017. Then in 2011 it reduced it to 6% by 2020. In 2014 it was down to 3% and then IATA died on the subject. In 2021, the actual amount of SAF produced was 0.02% of pre-pandemic industry consumption. Their targets move faster than their planes.

The authors conclude by asking:

What is the explanation for this tendency to set impressive goals and then abandon them or quietly revise them? Our hypothesis is that the targets present an impression of action, of direction, of the existence of a plan to deal with the impacts of aviation. These targets therefore serve to reassure decision-makers that the industry has the problem under control and that other, more politically difficult measures, such as demand management, are not necessary.

They also note that “this sometimes almost compulsive goal-setting model raises crucial questions about credibility”, again raising the question of predatory delay and whether it was merely a ploy to avoid taking measurements. Have they been lying to us since 2000 or did they honestly think they could achieve these goals?

“What I think is that for the aviation industry (and the politicians who support it), the continued growth is indisputable,” Alexander told Treehugger. “When the company’s environmental goals conflict with that future growth, it’s essentially the industry’s job to come up with a story to try to align its growth goal with the company’s goals. I think that’s is not that the target setters were necessarily hypocritical rather than naïve, but the choice of target measures is limited by the need not to limit growth, and it is not clear that the targets had an impact on business decisions.

This is the fundamental problem. Even as aircraft become more efficient, industry growth and emissions outpace emissions savings. Alexander notes that “it was always clear that aviation emissions were going to continue to rise, even with ambitious efficiency targets.”

And, as Treehugger’s Sami Grover recently wrote:

“Of course, anyone who has paid attention to the climate crisis knows that ‘minimising emissions growth’ is a far cry from the kinds of aggressive reductions we really need to pursue right now. So just like [ICCT aviation expert Dan] Rutherford told us in an interview last year that technological innovation will not replace the need – and should not be seen as an alternative – to ambitious efforts to reduce demand and replace air travel with alternatives when that is possible.”

Airbus ZEROe is a concept aircraft that promises to be the world’s first zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035.


This is where SAF and alternative fuels come in because efficiency targets don’t get you to zero by 2050. The dream now is that hydrogen, ammonia, batteries and new technologies will save us. Because then if they miss the targets, they have someone else to blame.

Alexander says to Treehugger:

“When IATA responded to our questions, they said, ‘It is important to emphasize that it is not IATA, or even the airline industry, that can drive SAF production. It has to be done by the big oil companies or by new companies coming into the market. They can set a bold/improbable goal and use it to justify airport expansion and low taxes, and if someone accuses them of not achieving it, well, they were just ambitious, but that’s the way it is. it’s really up to governments to fund new technologies and so on. ..”

Back to Possible website, the conclusion they draw from this report is that there are no technological solutions capable of evolving fast enough. And politically tough demand management measures are needed. The website states:

“We are calling for a new way to manage aviation emissions. We need a progressive tax on flights to fairly reduce the demand for flights, rather than relying on industry to reduce emissions on a trajectory of perpetual growth in passenger numbers. The frequent flyer charge is a popular and fair alternative to managing demand by imposing a higher tax on people who travel more often, such as the 15% of people who take 70% of all flights. A frequent flyer fee would be one of the fairest. and easy-to-implement methods to reduce aviation demand and emissions. »

Would that do the trick? At the time of writing, airlines have added a fuel surcharge around $350 for a round-trip transatlantic flight and around $1,100 for business class. It doesn’t seem to affect demand. But aviation remains one of the most difficult problems to solve. It might be worth a try.

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